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British Labour politician
Born 1953

Stephen Byers, a Member of Parliament since 1992, is the former the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1998-2001) and for Transport (2001-2002) who took a prominent role in Tony Blair's first two administrations.

Early Life

Stephen John Byers was born in Wolverhampton on the 13th April 1953, his parents later moved to Cheshire where he attended the City of Chester Grammar School, but hated it so much that he left and took his A-levels at Chester College of Further Education. He later studied law at Liverpool Polytechnic following which he lectured in the same subject at Newcastle Polytechnic from 1997.

His initial political experience was on the North Tyneside District Council, where he was first elected as a councillor in 1980 and later served as deputy leader between 1985 and 1992. Naturally he had ambitions to enter Parliament although his efforts to find a seat in the north-east were somewhat hampered by his lack of trade union sponsorship. He contested Hexham at the 1983 General Election, a safe Conservative seat then held by Geoffrey Rippon, but eventually found a home at Wallsend, following the retirement of the incumbent Ted Garrett, and was returned to the House of Commons at the 1992 General Election.

Following the death of the Party leader John Smith in May 1994, Byers emerged as one of the early supporters of Tony Blair, and was duly rewarded under Blair's leadership, becoming an Opposition Whip in 1994 and in the following year the party's spokesman on Education and Employment. In the meantime his Wallsend seat disappeared in a boundary reorganisation, although now with Blair's help he had no trouble in finding himself the even safer seat of Tyneside North.

In Government

Following the party's victory in the 1997 General Election, Byers was appointed as Minister for School Standards at the Department of Education and Employment. A year later in July 1998 he joined the Cabinet as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but another opportunity soon presented itself with the resignation of Peter Mandelson in December 1998, when Byers found himself drafted as Mandelson's successor as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which of course, is when the trouble started.

In April 1999 Byers hammered out a deal to provide BMW with around £150m worth of government aid which was intended to unlock a £1.7 billion investment programme by the German carmaker in its British based Rover subsidiary. It therefore came as something of a surprise to everyone when BMW announced on the 16th March 2000 that it could no longer afford to endure the £2m a day that the Rover Group was losing and put the company up for sale.

There followed an acrimonious dispute over whether Byers had misled Parliament or BMW had misled the Department of Trade and Industry regarding its intentions. Along the way Byers was accused of 'doctoring' documentation, as well as being generally incompetent. Faced with a barrage of criticism Byers used his influence to promote the superficially attractive option of selling the rump of Rover to the Phoenix consortium led by John Towers, a decision which simply delayed the inevitable, as Phoenix eventually collapsed into administration in 2005.

Although the subsequent report by the Trade and Industry Select Committee cleared him of the charge of misleading parliament whilst being highly critical of the conduct of the BMW management, the Rover affair was not a happy experience for Byers, and no sooner had he escaped from that particular debacle, he faced further criticism when he announced on the 7th February 2001 that the proposed sale of the Express Newspaper Group to Northern and Shell for £125 million would be allowed to proceed unhindered by any reference to the Competition Commission. The cause of the disquiet in this case was simply that Northern and Shell (proprietor one Richard Desmond) was regarded in some quarters as an inappropriate owner of a national newspaper since the company's business largely involved the publication of such titles as Asian Babes, Big and Busty etc etc. It also came as a surprise to many who believed that a precedent had already been established when, in May 1990 it had been ruled against the public interest for David Sullivan, who was involved in a similar line of business was prevented from acquiring a local newspaper, the Bristol Evening Post.

Cynics believed that Byers has simply passed the deal as a favour for the chairman of United News and Media (who were selling the Express group), one Clive Richard Hollick, known as the Lord Hollick, a party donor and a former special advisor (1997–1998) to the very department that Byers now headed.

Transport and 9/11

Having perhaps failed to quite live up to expectations in his previous post, in the post-election reshuffle Byers was moved sideways to become Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, (Effectively taking over responsibilities that had previously been held by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott). Sadly for Byers his time at Transport was to prove to be just as unhappy for a number of reasons.

His problems began on the 11th September 2001. At 2.55 pm that day, when the rest of the world was reeling over the shock of the World Trade Centre bombing, Byers's special adviser Jo Moore, clicked the send button on her email, despatching the following short message around the department; "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses'? - Jo". Naturally the contents of this e-mail were soon leaked and caused a storm of protest with many calling for Ms Moore's instant dismissal. Tony Wright the chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee got it about right when he branded Ms Moore's conduct as "inconsistent with any notion of public service". It is at this point that any right-thinking person would have sacked her, indeed any calculating politician with a sense of self-preservation would have sacked her, but for reasons which are not exactly clear Byers did not.

Almost as soon as Byers had managed to wiggle his way out of that little problem, he was forced to face up to the question of what to do about the country's railways. Simply put; Railtrack, the privatised company that now owned the country's railway infrastructure was rapidly heading for bankruptcy and was clamoring for a further injection of government money to allow it to remain solvent. On the 6th October 2001, Byers decided to allow Railtrack to go into administration, effectively allowing the government to re-acquire the company's assets without having to go to the trouble of renationalising the company and buying out its shareholders.

Once again there was a dispute over who had said what and when, and once again Byers was accused of misleading Parliament. It didn't much help when on the 27th November, Jo Moore leaked some minutes of a meeting between Byers and Railtrack on the same day as Gordon Brown was making is pre-budget report to Parliament, thus stealing the thunder of Mr Brown, and making Byers at least one permanent enemy.

Yet again Byers escaped unscathed only to find that the whole Jo Moore issue re-surfacing with a vengeance. On the 14th February 2002 yet another departmental email was leaked, this time its author was Martin Sixsmith. The text of this message supposedly ran, "There is no way I will allow this department to make substantiative statements next Friday. Princess Margaret is being buried on that day. I will absolutely not allow anything else to be." The Department of Trade and Industry dismissed this as a fabrication, but since it appears that since Sixsmith had indeed sent an email to Byers which it is believed said much the same thing, it had the effect of re-igniting the row of the previous September, since the clear implication of Sixmith's message was that there were people in the department who were still looking to bury uncomfortable news.

On the 15th February Sixsmith was invited to attend a meeting with Richard Mottram, the permanent secretary. He was told that Jo Moore had now offered to resign but that Byers had decided not to accept her resignation unless Sixsmith agreed to go as well. Sixsmith said he'd think about it and then went off to a prearranged doctor's appointment. However there appears to have been some kind of communication failure between Mottram and Byers, as later that day Byers issued a statement to the effect that Sixsmith had agreed to resign. Sixsmith heard the news on the radio as he emerged from his medical appointment and immediately contacted the media to insist that he had not resigned.

It was this little mess that prompted The Sun to run the story under the headline 'Liar Byers ... pants on fire' whilst The Daily Mirror dubbed him 'Spinocchio'. It also prompted Richard Mottram to utter the immortal words, "We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked, the whole department's fucked. It's been the biggest cock-up and we're all completely fucked." As it happens Byers wasn't quite fucked yet. Jo Moore agreed to quit (she was last heard of training to be a primary school teacher) whilst an agreed settlement was reached with Sixsmith, thus allowing the whole affair to be brushed aside.

Then in May 2002 the Richard Desmond affair resurfaced, when it became known that Desmond had donated £100,000 to the Labour Party only days after Byers's original decision not to refer the bid for Express Newspapers to the Competition Commission. Both he and the Party denied there was any connection between these two events, whilst Byers defended his decision by saying that he had in any case simply been following the advice of the Office of Fair Trading. In the same month Transport Select Committee issued its report on Byers's Ten-year transport plan. Despite its inbuilt Labour majority the Committee concluded that Byers's plan was "incomprehensible", whilst the Committee's chair, the veteran Gwyneth Dunwoody, derided the whole thing as vague, confused and poor value for money.

It was at this point that Byers decided he'd had enough and resigned on the 28th May 2002 saying it was "the right thing to do for the Labour Party and the government". His resignation forced Blair into another reshuffle; Alistair Darling took over as Secretary of State for Transport, whilst the responsibilities for local government and the regions where re-allocated to the newly minted Office of the Deputy Prime Minister where they ended up back in the hands of John Prescott.

After Government

Oddly enough, despite the long list of 'scandals' which are linked to his name, nothing in particular was ever proved against Byers at the time. In fact it was only much later as a result of court case brought by the Railtrack Private Shareholders Action Group that he was forced to admit that he had indeed been slightly economical with the truth as regards the statements he had made to Parliament at the time.

Despite being out of government Byers remains one of Blair's confidants, and occasionaly pops up to offer some words of support for his former leader in the twilight days of his authority.


SOURCES

  • Ben Davies, Profile: Stephen Byers, 28 May, 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2013177.stm
  • Stephen Byers quits government 28 May, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2016116.stm

On the Rover crisis

  • Roland Gribben, Byers finds £150m for Longbridge, 1 April 1999 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/htmlContent.jhtml?
    html=/archive/1999/04/01/cnbmw01.html
  • Byers voices 'regret' over Rover, 16 March 2000,
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/679756.stm
  • George Jones and Andrew Sparrow, Byers accused of doctoring records on crisis at Rover, 6 April 2000
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/htmlContent.jhtml?html=/archive/2000/04/06/nbye06.html
  • Byers 'not guilty' over Rover 13 April 2000
    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/711053.stm

On the Richard Desmond Affair

  • Fraser Nelson, Labour fights new sleaze claims, 13-May-02
    http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=516852002
  • Antony Barnett, Labour's fears over Express gift revealed May 19, 2002 The Observer
    http://politics.guardian.co.uk/funding/story/0,,718418,00.html
  • Byers defends Desmond decision 26 May, 2002 news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2009325.stm
  • Richard Desmond: Express route to respectability, 25 November, 2000
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1038736.stm

On Railtrack

  • Statement by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling
    http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_railways/documents/page/dft_railways_609986.hcsp
  • See also list of sources for Railtrack

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